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A Beginner’s Guide to Applying for College Financial Aid


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Amy Kool
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Posted on Fri Jan 23, 2015 4:11 am

A Beginner’s Guide to Applying for College Financial Aid

You have many options when it comes to finding money for college. Whether you take out a loan, get a scholarship or grant, or participate in a work-study program, there's a lot you need to know. Here are the basics.

There are several types of financial aid you could be eligible for. A majority of aid falls into two categories: need-based or merit-based. You can receive aid from the government (both federal and state), your college, and from other organizations. Financial aid can be categorized into that which needs to be repaid and aid that doesn't need to be repaid. The Federal Student Aid website has detailed information on both types, including grants, several types of loans, and campus-based programs.

The Federal Student Aid site explains how your college's financial aid office calculates how much aid you'll get:

The financial aid staff starts by deciding upon your cost of attendance (COA) at that school. They then consider your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). They subtract your EFC from your COA to determine the amount of your financial need and therefore how much need-based aid you can get. To determine how much non-need-based aid you can get, the school takes your cost of attendance and subtracts any financial aid you've already been awarded.

You need to apply for aid before the financial aid office can determine how much you'll get. Here's how to prepare.

Gather Your Paperwork and Information

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Get together all relevant information and paperwork needed to complete your applications. What you need will vary by application, but this FAFSA checklist is a great start:

  • Your Social Security Number
  • Your Alien Registration Number (if you are not a U.S. citizen)
  • Your most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned. (Note: You may be able to transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.)
  • Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)
  • Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
  • A Federal Student Aid PIN to sign electronically. (If you do not already have one, visit to obtain one.)

If you are a dependent student, then you will also need most of the above information for your parent(s). If you apply for grants or scholarships, you may also need:

  • Transcripts (for GPA proof)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Essays

Make it easier on yourself by gathering everything beforehand so you don't waste time searching for paperwork as you go through the application process.

Go Over Your Options

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Now, figure out what you actually qualify for. This will save you time since you can focus on financial aid you're likely to receive. Some common sources of financial aid include FAFSA, scholarships, grants, student loans, and work-study programs.

Even though you might not think you need to, you should always fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) because that's the only way to know what you qualify for. Some resources you can use to search for other aid options are:

  • Department of Labor's scholarship search, which offers financial aid opportunities on a national level. 
  • Your state's grant agency. List of contact information for yours is here.
  • Other types of aid from the federal government.
  • NerdScholar Scholarship Tool, a database of scholarships that allows you to filter your search by year in school, GPA, residency, and more.
  • Fastweb Scholarship Search, you must create a profile to use this search.
  • The College Board scholarship search, which consists of 2,000+ scholarships and internships.
  •, a database of nationally available scholarships.
  • Your guidance counselor or financial aid office.
  • The colleges you attend or are applying to.
  • Your community, such as your church, volunteer group, or other organization you participate in.

Once you figure out your options, decide which of them you want to pursue by prioritizing them.

Prioritize Your Choices

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Consider which of your options will give you the most return on your effort. For example, larger scholarships may take priority over smaller ones since you get more aid for the time and effort you put in. Also, think about which deadlines are first and make a schedule. This way you know which applications you need to get to first and won't miss any deadlines.

Make sure you know which of your choices have hard deadlines and rolling deadlines—and which ones are a first come, first serve basis. Prioritize your financial aid options to avoid missing deadlines—and missing out on money.

Focus Your Efforts

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Your search for financial aid may seem long and tiring, but with focus, you can pull through. Set aside time to fill out forms, questionnaires, and any other paperwork for aid. By doing this, you'll make the overall process easier on yourself.

Your focus may have to continue even after you turn in your applications—or receive the funding. If any of your options rely on you maintaining a certain GPA, or other factors, then focus on doing that so you don't lose the money.

Know What You're Getting Into

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When you get funding from someone else, whether it is a loan or gift aid, there will probably be bylines you need to follow to keep the funding. As one Lifehacker reader points out, you may have to be persistent in pursuing your benefits.

If you take out loans, know the interest rates and how that may affect your future. Interest can really increase the amount you pay back after you graduate, so know what you're in for before you agree to the loan terms. If you get scholarships or grants, know what could disqualify you or result in your aid being taken away. This can be especially important if you are granted hefty financial awards. Also, make sure you know whether these sources are a one time scholarship or grant, or if you'll receive them on an annual basis. If you get a Pell Grants, know what your lifetime maximum is.

Lastly, don't pay for information on scholarships or to submit federal applications like the FAFSA. Fastweb's Mark Kantrowitz goes into detail:

"If you have to pay money to get money, it is probably a scam. Never invest more than a postage stamp for information about scholarships or to apply for a scholarship."

Spend Your Aid Wisely

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Most grants and student loans are paid to you during the first few weeks of the new semester or quarter. Keep this in mind when budgeting your expenses for the start of the term as you may have to use funds from the previous disbursement to cover the gap. You will typically get paid monthly for work-study programs.

If you've taken out loans or gotten a grant, you will be sent the remaining money after tuition, fees, and other costs are deducted by your college. Once you have all that money, it can be tempting to spend it on fun things like nights out. Spend your financial aid wisely. If you have some left over from loans, put it towards paying back the loan. This will help cut down on future payments and save you money in terms of interest.

Your search for financial resources to fund your education can seem daunting, but follow the steps above and you'll be able to get through it easily.

Source: LifeHacker.

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